We are in a climate emergency. The future looks bleak, but I try to do my little part. In my personal life, I went vegetarian, then vegan. I once tried (and failed) to establish a compost bin, and I’ve received five keep cups as gifts because people think I’m that sort of person (which I am). In my professional life, I’m a member of DB Results’ internal Design Thinking team and sustainability committees. And, I believe we can all be the chaperones of change.
What is design thinking?
While the word ‘design’ may make you think about the visual elements of a product, technically design is about creating a plan with a purpose. Design thinking, therefore, is the process of how we understand that purpose, ensuring we have empathy for the users we’re designing for and their journey. We think about their needs, goals and pain points. Hand-in-hand with design thinking is human-centred design, a mindset that puts the user’s needs at the centre of product design. This ensures the end result is relevant and beneficial to the user in the long term.
What is sustainability?
In the midst of the climate crisis, sustainability will conjure images of recycling and environmentalism. But sustainability actually means being able to maintain a certain rate or level. So, is our way of life sustainable? Can we live like this in the long run?
The science says no – not at the current rate of finite resource consumption.
If we want to sustain human existence, then we need to keep humans at the heart of our solutions – coincidentally, this is the purpose of human-centred design. At the same time, we want to be more efficient so that fewer resources are needed for the same level of output.
The great news is that we can do both at once.
Design strategies to save the world
At DB Results, we teach and preach design thinking principles and techniques that ensure that our solutions are solving the right problems. We should also avoid creating unnecessary or unwanted products because they will just end up in landfills (physical or metaphorical), contributing to pollution, climate change and a range of socio-cultural problems. By ensuring our work provides value to the customer and the end user, we avoid the negative consequences, such as technical debt and wasted resources (both physical and human). Another way to think about it is that if we don’t know the benefit we are providing, the needs we are meeting or the pain point we are addressing, then we run the risk of creating something that no one will use or that will have to be redeveloped.
As the call for companies to “do more” in the face of the climate crisis amplifies, many designers are turning to ethical considerations when starting a project. These include asking:
- Is it needed? Will the project contribute to a future where human needs are met?
- Is it wanted? Will the project create a positive experience for both humans and their environment?
- Is it sustainable? What metrics can we use to tell us whether the outcome of the project can be maintained at this rate?
- Is it helpful? Will this project support a more environmentally sustainable world?
These questions should also be asked with a focus on the users. One simple way to put human-centred design in action is by undertaking research and conducting early testing of concepts with the users themselves. This gives us a way to know early in the process – before we have used too many resources – whether a feature, product or even a whole project is worth pursuing. We are then able to review and redesign where necessary to ensure that the final product is both desirable and meets the users’ needs.
Another strategy is to ensure we are solving the right problem. Using our design thinking tools, we can find the root cause of a problem or pain point and then evaluate whether we can fix that, not just the symptoms. We can also dig into assumptions that have been made and subsequently validate them, allowing us to actively prevent the wastage of resources that would have been used to do something unnecessary or counter-productive. In this way, design thinking lends itself to sustainability.
Digital technology – friend or foe?
DB Results is a digital company that works on digital solutions. Most of the products we work on are purely digital, which means we don’t have much waste heading to landfill. However, the data-processing centres that keep our internet running take a lot of power to run and have high emissions. And did you know that your emails can emit around 0.6 tonnes of carbon emissions per year? That means for every eight people in an organisation, the emails have the same carbon footprint as a return flight from Melbourne to London!
Despite this, digital products by their nature have the potential to make life more efficient, and therefore more sustainable. Through the Internet of Things (IoT), ‘smart’ systems can use data to make smart decisions. For example, Finnish company Enevo makes smart waste disposal devices with sensors and analytical software, providing waste companies with an optimal pick-up route based on when bins are full instead of collecting all bins at set times. This makes the collection of waste more cost-efficient, as well as more sustainable by reducing the resources used to collect waste (i.e. fewer trucks using less petrol).
This is an example of how, as we gather and store greater quantities of data (they don’t call it ‘big data’ for nothing), we can make more intelligent decisions. The IoT is a great opportunity for the world to become more efficient. Remember, the fewer resources we use now, the longer we can live on this planet. Of course, we will need digital technology in order to interpret the data, which is where DB Results and our partners can do our part in saving the world.
And it’s not just me that thinks this. This hope-inspiring quote comes straight from the United Nations:
Scalable new technologies and nature-based solutions will enable us all to leapfrog to a cleaner, more resilient world. If governments, businesses, civil society, youth, and academia work together, we can create a green future where suffering is diminished, justice is upheld, and harmony is restored between people and planet.
A sustainable digital future
On that note, I want to leave you with a little bit of good news. Although technology requires carbon emissions, there are ways to reduce those emissions to a sustainable level. Emails may generate CO2 emissions, but by sending a link instead of an attachment an email’s carbon footprint can be cut in half. Hit the unsubscribe button instead of just deleting spam emails and you can stop the emails at their source, with the added benefit of preventing your inbox from becoming too cluttered.
Similarly, data-processing centres are being built in colder countries, where less energy is required to keep them cool. Even better, Nordic company EcoDataCenter is developing “climate positive” data centres. Their first data centre was built in Sweden and is connected to the town’s heating and power plant, allowing surplus heat from the data centre to feed directly back to the heating plant. The facility runs entirely on renewable energy sources.
So while we may not know what the future will look like, we can sleep a little better at night knowing that there are companies, technologies and people out there trying to make the world a more sustainable place. As long as we keep humans at the centre of what we do – and recognise that we all need a planet to live on – then things might actually turn out to be okay.